President Trump is joined by Vice President Pence for an Executive Order signing" by Shealah Craighead / Public Domain

The ‘Religious Freedom’ Agenda

Jul 17, 2019

By Mattahias Schwartz

Behind the Oval Office circus of drama and distraction, conservatives are quietly reshaping government in ways that could resonate for generations to come. One major front is the integration of religion into foreign policy, in which the phrase religious freedom figures prominently—in the same way it did during the George W. Bush administration. As it is not partial to any particular religion, religious freedom avoids running afoul of the Constitution’s establishment clause. It also has a footprint in the existing federal bureaucracy. The State Department’s Office of International Religious Freedom, headed by an ambassador-ranked diplomat, has been around since the late 1990s. This week, Ambassador Sam Brownback, who heads the office, will host the second annual Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom, along with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. “Nobody disagrees with religious freedom,” Brownback told me in an interview last week. “Well, the Chinese do,” he added.

One hundred and fifteen foreign ministers are expected to attend the ministerial, along with persecuted Yazidis, Uighurs, and Andrew Brunson, an American pastor who was imprisoned in Turkey for 21 months. The event may help institutionalize God’s preeminent role in Trumpist-American statecraft, something that is already apparent from the administration’s rhetoric. President Donald Trump cited God to explain the April 2017 Syria air strikes; Vice President Mike Pence has used the Bible to explain the movement of the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. When asked recently if God might have engineered Trump’s election to protect Israel from Iran, Pompeo, who keeps a Bible open in his office, replied, “As a Christian, I certainly believe that’s possible.”

Looking down last week from Brownback’s fifth-floor office in the Harry S. Truman Building in Washington, D.C., past the engraved tablets with the Ten Commandments and the Kansas City Chiefs football helmet on the window sill, I could see large white tents raised in the courtyard to accommodate the crowd for the upcoming ministerial. Inclusivity will be the order of the day. One panel will include victims of the San Diego synagogue shooting, the Sri Lanka Easter bombings, and the attacks on two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. The pluralism contrasts with Trump’s comments about Islam. He has often characterized Muslim immigration in particular as being a threat to Western security. Instead of the Barack Obama–era and State Department–preferred phrase radical Islamist terrorism, Trump and Pence speak provocatively about “radical Islamic terrorism,” which links the religion with the violence.

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